Interview with a Social Insect Scientist: Marina Choppin

Marina’s article (together with Lori Lach), where they explored that the novel host to Nosema ceranae, Apis mellifera is less likely to detect the parasite than its original host, the asian honeybee A. cerana, can be found here.

IS: Who are you, and what do you do?

MC: My name is Marina Choppin, I am 26 years old and was born in France. I did my bachelor’s degree in biology in Bordeaux and my master’s degree both in Tours and Cairns in Australia. I am currently based in Mainz and have just defende my PhD in May! During my PhD I investigated the mechanisms that underlie longevity and fecundity in ants and I have worked with bees and termites before. So my focus is on social insects and I am interested in questions related to evolution, using tools like behavioral observations, experimental manipulations, and bioinformatics.

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

MC: I grew up close to nature in Corsica where the biodiversity is mind-blowing and I always had a particular interest in insects. They are everywhere and paying attention to them is like diving into a whole new world! Later on, I started my master’s degree in Tours which had a strong focus on insect biology and I got to learn about social insects, which were so intriguing to me. So I studied termites at the IRBI (Research Institute for the Biology of Insect) in Tours with Dr. Christophe Lucas during a 2-month project and got hooked!

Collecting Apis mellifera honey bees for the experiment described in Chopin and Lach, Insectes Sociaux 2022. Wearing a bee suit in a tropical climate was not always fun…

IS: What is your favorite social insect, and why?

MC: I would say the soldier caste of turtle ants because they represent evolution at its finest. Their head is shaped in a way that allows them to block the entrance of their nest, which is amazing. And they are cute too!

IS: What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

MC: Probably the first time I published as a first author because this manuscript was not necessarily planned as a part of my PhD project. We collected the ants for my PhD in the US in Arizona and when we got back to the lab I measured all the queens from all the nests, over 2000 individuals, because the ant species I studied has two queen morphs that differ in size so I needed to assign my queens to one or the other morph. But after analyzing the data set out of curiosity, we found an interesting pattern: an influence of colony composition on queen body size depending on their morph. So we also measured workers, did behavioral experiments, chemical assays, and demographic analyses to further investigate the relationships between queen and worker traits, colony composition, and environment and we ended up writing a nice story that we published in Myrmecological News. It was great to build on an unexpected finding because it was different from the usual experiment planning which is way more thought-through of course.

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

MC: Not actively, no. I have helped with practical courses during my PhD which was nice because I love statistics and I tried to make it more enjoyable for students as well. And I recently created a Twitter account to share my research but it isn’t very intuitive for me for some reason. But I do love talking about my research with friends or people I meet during my travels because they are always super intrigued and come up with non-expert questions that can catch you off guard and make you think deeper about your work!  

Apis mellifera honey bees at the entrance of their hive on the campus of James Cook University (JCU) in Cairns (Australia) where I conducted my master thesis under the supervision of Dr. Lori Lach.

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research, and what’s essential for future research?

MC: I am a bit biased of course but there are still many interesting questions to investigate when it comes to social insect aging. Trying to understand how social insect queens can achieve extraordinarily long lifespans while remaining highly fecund is still a mystery, although more and more studies add to our knowledge on the topic! I also think that with the cutting-edge molecular protocols and associated bioinformatic tools that are currently being developed and applied to social insect research we will be able to get deeper insights into this mystery in the coming years. The field of epigenetics is also essential to navigate and promising because phenotypic plasticity is a pillar of social insect societies.

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

MC: I feel like in general different scientists have different opinions on the same topics, regardless of what the topic is. Which makes science interesting and stimulating. But I know for example that the functional relevance of DNA methylation in social insect genome is still actively debated! And once again the newest chromatin profiling techniques might provide answers to this question.

Feeding my experimental ant colonies in one of the climate chambers in the laboratory in Mainz where I did my PhD. I actually took this picture for my family, to show them my working environment, hence the heart shape with my hands!

IS: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

MC: I recently read “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. We know that living in the present is important but it is so difficult to do. Humans, and me the first, tend to seek reassurance in the past through memories that give us a sense of identity or to anticipate and overthink the future because it is a source of uncertainties. I would recommend this book to people that are interested in trying to make their human experience more enjoyable and less worrisome. Although the author sometimes places himself in a “know-it-all” position that I find annoying and unnecessary. We are all here to learn after all.

IS: Outside of science, what are your favorite activities, hobbies, or sports?

MC: Talking about books, I do like to read and I listen to podcasts pretty much on a daily basis. I like to learn about different topics outside of biology like health, nutrition or psychology. I also like to write and I have been doing it since I was a kid, I started writing a book that I put aside when writing my PhD thesis and I’m looking forward to getting back to it! I also travel as much as possible, by myself as well because it makes it a completely different experience. I also enjoy working out, doing yoga, and meditating. I love the outdoors and find nature very therapeutic so I try to walk around and hike in my free time and do horseback riding when I get the chance. And because life is all about balance, I also enjoy going out for drinks with my friends!

Setup of the Proboscis Extension Response (PER) assay that I used for the experiment described in Choppin and Lach, Insectes Sociaux 2022. Bees were placed in Eppendorf tubes so that they cannot move, while we can touch their antennae with a filter paper soaked in the desired solution and see whether they extend their proboscis as a sign of interest to consume the solution.

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

MC: I appreciate this question because mental health is such an important topic that is sometimes overlooked in academia. When things get tough I try to do extra self-care, be less strict with myself in terms of productivity and routine, and most importantly I try to remind myself that this is temporary. Nothing lasts forever, bad times included! 

IS: If you were to go live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why?

MC: I think answering this question requires thinking about two things: the survival aspect and the psychological aspect, in terms of loneliness. For my survival, very cliché answer but I would bring a knife. For my mental health, I would bring a notebook and a pen (hopefully it counts as one item, otherwise I would only take the pen!) and finally, I would bring this big scarf I have which I brought on all my travels, camping trips, and festival. I would use it as a blanket at night and to protect my head from the sun during the day!

Horseback riding on the island of Holbox in Mexico. I traveled there by myself in 2021 for a couple of days, to escape winter (and the pandemic admittedly). The biodiversity on the island was amazing.

IS: Who do you think has had the most considerable influence on your science career?

MC: Dr. Romain Libbrecht for sure. He is one of the group leaders in Mainz and he was my PhD mentor. I find him brilliant as a scientist and amazing as a human. He is particularly skilled when it comes to statistics and it was always extremely rewarding and enjoyable to brainstorm with him on the best way to analyze challenging data sets. I learned a lot from him and I am really grateful for his help. He also made me feel more confident in my vision of science, which is all about rigor, quality, and critical thinking, because I believe that we share these values.

IS: What advice would you give to someone hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

MC: Maybe to keep an open mind because these little creatures do not operate like most living organisms! And to avoid anthropomorphism. It is too easy to draw parallels between ant and human societies for example, but it won’t necessarily benefit your research. At least in my opinion!

Members of the SoLong Research Unit that I integrated when I started my PhD. In this research unit, researchers from different universities, mostly based in Germany, are investigating aging in ants, bees, termites, and Drosophila. Here we were attending the ESEB in Turku (Finland) in 2019. 

IS: What is your favorite place science has taken you?

MC: The Chiricahua mountains in Arizona where we collected the ants for my project. We stayed at the SWRS (South Western Research Station) and this was one of the most amazing places I have experienced. We ran into amazing wildlife all the time, like hummingbirds, bobcats, rattlesnakes, tarantulas, or coatis. The landscapes were stunning and it was simply amazing to share a beer in the evening, under the stars, with other students and researchers from all over the world that gathered in this remote area because of their common interest in nature basically.